Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
Christmas came early last Saturday, but it wasn’t just the result which made victory at Tranmere so sweet. Gary Mills might have found a solution to an issue which threatened to dog us into the New Year.
Javan Vidal’s injury is a big deal for us as we don’t have a like-for-like replacement. Mills doesn’t seem to fancy Mark Carrington as a full back and Ross White’s opportunities had been limited to a short outing at Dover in October, so it’s been down to Manny Smith to fill the gap.
I chose that last phrase deliberately, as Smith, while not a square peg in a round hole, is certainly a little bit oblong in that position.
There’s no criticism intended in that. Smith is a wonderful centre back, indisputably the man you build your back four around. His magnificent consistency and muscular reliability last season made him a high point in a damp squib of a campaign.
However, he’s not a natural right back. Defensively he’s not as secure there as he’s a classic warrior central defender, battling to protect the central areas. Out wide he can get dragged areas of the pitch he’s less comfortable in. You can see the warning signs when he plays as a right-sided centre back in a three.
He’s had his moments, most notably at Aldershot, where he enjoyed an excellent game defensively and got forward to good effect. He’s never going to be comfortable bombing on beyond the wide man when he comes inside, or working little triangles to get into the box, but he got high up the pitch in that match and stood some decent balls into the area.
However, often his uneasiness is obvious. The Macclesfield game, admittedly played on a surface which troubled a lot of our players, was uncomfortable watching. You don’t like to see vulnerability in your heroes, yet here Smith was, looking like Superman exposed to a heavy dose of Kryptonite.
On Saturday, whether by design or simply to rotate for the FA Trophy, Mills gave White ninety minutes. The youngster responded with an increasingly assured display, adorned half way through the second half with a fine assist for Sean Newton’s goal.
White has consistently looked like a fine prospect, and it was good to see him show Mills what he can do for the first time. If the gaffer liked what he saw, he can restore Smith to his rightful position and then luxuriate in the options he has in defence.
The back four he fielded at Tranmere looked sound, with Jamal Fyfield adapting well having played much of his career at left back. With him alongside Smith and Blaine Hudson there’s a pleasing presence to our defence, and don’t forget that White played much of his youth career in the centre of defence too.
That back four released Newton to put in an impressive shift in midfield too. White’s performance and the flexibility in Mills’ Summer signings hopefully means that Manny won’t have to be a fish out of water for too much longer.